Was the Metro a Mistake?

Since  the recent announcement that Laval is considering establishing a network of Trolley Buses throughout its territory, a lively debate has ensued throughout the region of the merits of such a system versus that of Trams. Many commentators have stressed that the slight advantages of Trams do not make up for the fact that their costs are much higher.  The choice between the two systems could have huge ramifications for the future of the city of Montreal.  Once a network is in place, future generations are stuck with that choice.  This would limit any network expansions to the mode chosen by the current administration.  This could not be more clear than with the case of Montreal’s metro network.  When the city decided to put in place an underground transportation, it was faced with the choice of using traditional rail cars, or ones with rubber tires.  The city decided to used the latter.  The result of this choice, is that the metro must stay underground. In other networks the subway rises above ground as it leaves the central core.  This allows the network to be expanded quickly at very little cost.  Montreal’s network is not as flexible. Any expansion must be achieved at huge cost by tunneling, as was seen in the latest expansion to Laval. There are many transportation corridors on the island of Montreal that could have benefited with Metro service through cheap above ground expansion. This consequence must be kept in mind as the city decides whether or not to introduce Tram service.  The routes chosen by the city might one day prove insufficient. The city must take into consideration how future administrations will be able to expand the new network.


  1. I’ve never understood why new metro lines aren’t build using steel wheels. The cost of keeping two sets of rolling stock would probably be offset by the efficiency of a system that is cheaper to build.

  2. Yeah, can’t we just make new lines with traditional steel wheel cars? Nothing says that all the lines have to have rubber tires and be underground..

  3. Perhaps that would be something to consider. The main disadvantage is that the trains on the existing lines would not be able be used interchangeably on the new line. This would increase the cost of acquiring and maintaining the rolling stock. In Montreal the question has not really arisen. There hasn’t been a new line since the blue line was constructed over 20 years ago. There was a plan to construct has new line along Pie-IX however that has been put on the back burner.

  4. In the article I was referring to the expansion of existing lines not the creation of new lines. In addition, lines could have been split at the ends into two branches. This is something that is done in many European cities.

  5. I currently live in Paris (after 10 years in Montreal), and I have to say the public transportation system here makes me jealous as a Montrealer.

    There are 14 metro lines, 5 RER lines (hybrid train/metro), several train networks and a few tram lines as well. The city and its suburbs are so well-covered, you can literally go from anywhere to anywhere else without much difficulty.

    They also do have metro lines that go above ground for certain stretches. Not only is it cheaper, but the views are amazing! Imagine crossing the Seine river on a metro and watching the Eiffel Tower and Sacré Coeur! Really amazing! I do this trip every day to get to work, and I’m still not tired of it.

  6. A mistake, I think. I recall reading — perhaps here — that Drapeau had also been considering monorails for the city, before becoming convinced that they were not pratical.

    But he wanted something show-off-y. It couldn’t just be a conventional subway system, like other cities had.

    And so we have a subway system that is incredibly expensive to expand outside of our tiny city core.

  7. Extending the metro aboveground, while a good idea in theory, is unfortunately really impractical given how the system is built. You would never get a regular steel-wheel train to negotiate the metro’s dips, curves, and slopes. You need rubber wheels for that. (As an aside, it is interesting to note that the metro’s existing stock is designed to sink down onto steel wheels and run on the metro’s metal rails in the unlikely event that all the rubber tires are blown out)

    Plus, would we really want the STM (not the most adaptable of agencies at the best of times) to have to deal with new logistics problems like rain, snow, and debris on the tracks? They have enough trouble keeping a closed system running well.

    If we’re spending money on transport, we should spend it to improve and extend our existing infrastructure. Reserved bus lanes. A denser bus schedule. A complete re-boot of the AMT. Heck, more metro stations even as long as they do away with the whole “pay extra to use new stuff” thing.

  8. Why don’t you guys try to influence the policy-making process by a) advocating (in the real world, in some organized manner) for increased transportation spending and capital expenditures in things like metro stations and b) advocating for an urban form that makes these investments worthwhile. (multi-story buildings built up to the sidewalk)?

  9. I agree that it was an error. Almost all metro systems I know run above ground once outside the dense urban area (Stockholm is a good example but of course there are many others). Essentially any future Metro expansions would be a criminal waste of money especially here where public infratructure, unlike Europe, is difficult to finance. The tramway actually is a life saver in that, within its own right-of-way, it could provide equivalent service and even better once in the suburbs (that of Dublin moves at 80 kph once outside the centre).
    By the way, rubber tires are not necessary, at least for gradients. Furthermore they are noisier than modern steel wheels.

  10. Here’s an idea: our trains with rubber wheels could work above ground if the elevated tracks were covered in u-shaped solarium-type covers. We’ve all seen escalators covered in such a manner.

  11. Bien que la technologie choisie pour le métro à Montréal présente plusieurs désavantages, il faut aussi se souvenir qu’un métro sur pneumatique complètement souterrain présentait à l’époque de sa conception (et encore aujourd’hui) plusieurs avantages : réduction de la vibration (très pratique dans le cas de Montréal où une grande partie des bâtiments sont construits sur de l’argile), réduction du bruit, meilleures accélérations et décélération, capacité de grimper des pentes plus prononcée et de prendre des courbes plus serrées (facilitant la conception des tunnels en permettant de suivre les fillons où l’excavation est plus facile). Aussi, dans une ville qui reçoit plus de 225 cm de neige par an, l’avantage d’un métro souterrain est indéniable.

    Dans les années 1950 et 1960, Montréal avait les moyens de ses ambitions, on prévoyait une urbanisation aussi dense que Rosemont jusque dans l’ouest de l’île, que la ville allait s’étendre jusqu’à Saint-Jérôme et que Montréal compterait 8 millions d’habitants à l’an 2000. Le choix de la technologie du métro n’était pas illogique dans ce contexte.

    Aujourd’hui le contexte est différent, la poursuite du développement du métro comme envisagée il y a 50 ans n’est plus possible. Bien qu’il soit important de faire une réflexion sur les choix passés, nous n’avons pas le choix de composer avec ce qui est en place aujourd’hui. En fait, une autre question très importante, sinon plus importante, à se poser est : qu’est-ce qu’on fait maintenant?

    Si je me souviens bien, la STM fait son benchmarking avec Lyon, une ville qui se compare bien avec Montréal en terme de population, d’activité économique, d’institutions, de rayonnement, etc. À Lyon, il existe un système de métro pratiquement entièrement souterrain dans les secteurs les plus denses qui est complété par un réseau de tramway de surface qui s’étire vers les zones périphériques. Intéressant.

  12. “By the way, rubber tires are not necessary, at least for gradients. Furthermore they are noisier than modern steel wheels.”

    On the other hand, rubber tires negotiate turns easier and quieter.

    Remember how they ditched line 3…I wonder how different the network would be if they had gone ahead with a hybrid network.

    Personally, I prefer when the trains go underground…if you’ve ever lived across the street from an elevated line, it is a nuisance. I would like to see better coverage within our “tiny core”–it isn’t all about extending lines to the hinterland. Does anybody have an idea of the actual cost of elevated lines? I’m sure it’s cheap-er, but…not cheap.

    Michael: “In addition, lines could have been split at the ends into two branches. This is something that is done in many European cities.”

    This doesn’t mean that it is something desirable. In Paris, at the moment, they want to get rid of the bis lines by turning them into separate lines.

  13. The reason why tires were chosen is that underground railroads can be horribly noisy. Apparently there are technical improvements now that reduce the shriek of metal on metal, but it was still a pretty noisy business back in the early 1960s when the Montreal metro was being conceived.

    Anyway, if you look into the Montreal metro tracks you always see a set of conventional tracks as well as the concrete runners used by the existing cars. There may be a technical reason why both systems could not be used concurrently by different train designs but I don’t know what they could be.

  14. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexico_City_Metro

    Why is it a problem (the rubber tires)? Because of winter?

    I just think there wasn’t much planning ahead. The Mexico City’s metro is exactly the same as Montreal’s and it goes on the surface and underground too.

    The only thing that helps Mexico City keep going is its Metro. Please see the following data:


    Total transported passengers: 1,352,408,424
    Total courtesy passes handed out: 111,631,191
    Kilowatts consumed Total: 933,512,350
    Station with less affluence: Santa Anita Line 4 with 526,706 passengers
    Station with most: Indios Verdes Line 3 with 43,777,981 passengers

    Km in service: 176.771
    Km travelled: 39,294,727

    Service: 365 days a year

    Taken and (badly) translated from: http://www.metro.df.gob.mx/operacion/cifrasoperacion.html

    So I still see a lot of future in Montreal’s metro. Its 3 lovely lines, remind me a bit of my monster hometown *we even had some cars that did that musical thing… like from the seventies song*


  15. Snow on the tracks, but also the hazard of blowouts at high speed, I think. And the existing train cars were never designed with winter heating in mind.

  16. I once read that Montreal selected rubber tires to be able to climb the steep hill between berri and sherbrooke street stations.

    One real mistake will be to build a tram on parc avenue. There is already quite excellent bus service. To make an improvement here we just need more buses, not a (sure to cost) billion dollar tram system.

    If we want to spend money (which we don’t have) on real improvements and along the nature of a tram or light rail systems, start with something on dedicated track between Montreal and the west island.

  17. The Metro, as lovely as it is, is horrendously expensive to expand. And once a line is in place, it stays there “forever”. Buses and trolley buses on the other hand are much cheaper and much more flexible. (Trams kinda sit on the fence).

    The reason buses tend to “suck” compared to the metro is because they don’t run as frequently, they are stuck in traffic and the driver does double duty as a fare collector.

    When you think about it, none of these problems are inherent to the actual vehicle, but the way we use it.

    Reserve lanes exclusively for metrobuses. Bus stuck in traffic problem solved.

    Have metrobus stops that behave like a train station (i.e. restrict access to boarding zone to people who paid their fare). Boom, no more fare collecting on the bus.

    Have big accordeon metrobuses run at the same interval as Metro trains.

    To see how buses can be as efficient as a Metro (at a small fraction of the price), see the example of Curitiba, Brazil.


    Unfortunately, to achieve this here in Montreal, we need to have politicians with the balls to remove lanes of cars to put metrobuses instead. There is no technical reason not to do this otherwise.

    Metrobuses can be diesel powered, or electric trolleys. We could start with diesel to use the existing rolling stock first, then switch to trolley once a line has been proven sucessful.

    — Xavier

  18. How about 3 lovely lines and one little stubby one? That yellow line is only 3 stops!

  19. I don’t see how it is possible to build any public transport system without there being elements that seem “mistakes” in retrospect, but building the métro certainly wasn’t a mistake. Look at Ottawa, where there still isn’t proper mass public transport although the city has grown larger than either Toronto or Montréal were at the time our metro/subway systems were built. Not building any metro at all has proven a far more dire error.

    The great tragedy here was the loss of the trams – unlike Toronto – and if trolleybuses might be a good solution in Laval (though I don’t think so – Laval needs rapid transport that will help structure it as a true urban area), Montréal needs trams with own right-of-way that can provide truly rapid public transport for commuters and other passengers.

    There are a couple of lines in the Paris suburbs now and already one in Paris proper. While I agree with SeekOdin about the wonders of the Paris métro system, there too there are issues of initial design that need rejigging, especially for people who live in one suburb, or in the edge of Paris, and work in another suburb or outlying district. Bringing back the circle route int the form of a tram, and other connections between areas outside the central core are among the improvements currently in the works.

    Yes, I actually have dreams about some of the elevated métro lines, but they do tend to depress the quality of life of those living right next to them.

  20. > A mistake, I think. I recall reading — perhaps here — that Drapeau had also been considering monorails for the city, before becoming convinced that they were not pratical.

    En effet. Drapeau voulait un monorail, pour être absolument incompatible avec le réseau ferroviaire, car il ne voulait pas que le CN ou le CP prenne le contrôle du Métro… (Drapeau a toujours été opposé aux trains de banlieue, parce que selon lui, c’est à cause que les banlieues se sont développées. Il faut croire que le vieux snoreau était trop con pour remarquer que les autoroutes étaient bien pires…).

    Lucien l’Allier a finalement réussi à convaincre Drapeau d’avoir un métro sur pneus qui serait tout aussi incompatible avec les chemins-de-fer qu’un monorail…

    * * *

    Le métro n’est absolument pas justifié à Montréal. Sauf dans le centre-ville, la densité ne le justifie absolument pas. Ce qui aurait du être fait, c’est de moderniser le réseau de tramway qui était d’ailleurs excellent, quitte à les faire passer en tunnel au centre-ville. L’avantage est que si une des lignes, sur St-Laurent par exemple est bloquée, les gens peuvent passer sur St-Laurent.

    On se doute que le métro est encore moins justifié que ça à Laval… Pour le même prix, on aurait pu avoir une ligne d’un bout à l’autre du Boulevard des Laurentides, une autre sur St-Martin de Pie-IX jusqu’à Chomedey, et une autre sur Labelle qui, en entrant à Montréal, aurait fini à Côte-Vertu.

    Mais non, ça prenait du gros ciment.

    > The reason why tires were chosen is that underground railroads can be horribly noisy.

    C’est pas la raison. Paris a expérimenté au début des années 50 avec des pneus pour augmenter l’accélération, dans le but d’augmenter la capacité des lignes. Il n’y a aucune autre raison, la diminution du bruit n’était qu’un avantage auxiliaire.

    Depuis, les système de contrôle de traction ont fait suffisamment de progrès pour permettre les mêmes performances avec du matériel fer sur fer, au point que le métro sur pneus est carrément dépassé…

  21. tamara, one thing you forgot to mention about mexico city’s metro is that there are more than twice as many metro stations. granted, mexico city is HUGE, and the population is HUGE to boot. but montreal’s system leaves out such large chunks of the island, no wonder ridership is low. it is crazy to me that they have made so many large mistakes in planning the network. there were basically no improvements made between 1988 and 2007, during which time other metro networks across the world increased their networks. like many other things in this city, the STM is stuck in the past, still reveling in their glowing 1970s heyday.

    i’m not a montrealer, and i don’t plan on staying here much longer, but for those of you that are, make you voices and opinions heard! this STM business needs more input from non-governmental forces.

  22. LOL @ MB… it´s true! I always forget the Yellow line.

    The blowouts at high speed, well, those tires are made for high speed but I’ve caught myself thinking plenty of times about what could be done with the snow with a surface metro (like in Mexico City)… Maybe 1 train with a special something opens the tracks before the others pass or all trains having a special something in the front… IDK.

    But I truly believe that adding more metro lines would be the true option of making this city better and bigger. And well, if Mexico could… why not Montreal?

  23. Kate: The conventional tracks you’re referring to are in fact not tracks. They’re rails carrying standard 120-volt current to power the lights, fans, etc in the trains.

  24. If I’m not mistaken, a Blue line extension is on the radar of the STM, in addition to an extension of the Orange line from, Cote Vertu to Bois-Franc, which I believe will happen first.

  25. anne wrote: “there were basically no improvements made between 1988 and 2007, during which time other metro networks across the world increased their networks.”

    Hm..I don’t know if you should put all the blame on the STM for this. As far as I know, one of the government transport bureaus had placed a moratorium on subway expansions after the blue line to cut costs, and only recently lifted it, allowing them to extend the orange line. I would imagine there might be other shovel-ready projects waiting for money.

  26. Hah, it’s weird, I thought more people would know why we have those rubber tires. Well here is the insider information, which Bob hinted at.

    We have rubber tires because our metro goes UNDER WATER. There are no metal rails that can go up and down our steep climbs. Rubber tires are necessary for that.

    By the way, the life span of our metro system when it was built in 1967 was 40 years. Life span, as in we should renew some cars and lines. 2007 comes along and the city starts waking up… oh wait – maybe we should start investing.

    So, if you’re wondering why the metro is always broken (it can’t be explained by people attempting suicide, especially if you look at the numbers), it’s because our metro system is waay overdue for some repairs. But, first money went to replacing the Novabus lemons, and in 2011 we should start getting some new cars.

    But yes, rubber tires are very expensive and inconvenient.

  27. Lily: I’m not sure what going under water has to do with it unless they had to go to extraordinary depths here – and that would only have been required for the yellow line. There are numerous lines below rivers in London, New York, Paris, Moscow, San Francisco… actually almost every metro system.

    No one’s mentioned the obvious answer to the rubber wheels/surface track dilemma – a larger and much longer version of those temporary garages made out of plastic sheeting that people put on their driveways in winter. It would look glorious.

  28. According to STM, the following are the reasons why rubber tires are used:

    This permits a quieter ride for both the passengers and for buildings above the tracks; it also makes it easier for trains to climb slopes.
    Therefore, unlike most subway systems, it is built entirely underground due to Montreal’s winter conditions, which would make rubber tire technology impractical.

  29. “As far as I know, one of the government transport bureaus had placed a moratorium on subway expansions after the blue line to cut costs, and only recently lifted it, allowing them to extend the orange line. I would imagine there might be other shovel-ready projects waiting for money.”

    It was the Bourassa government who put a moratorium on further metro construction in the 80s. Before that, the Levesque government had put a moratorium on autoroute construction in the 70s.

    The Laval extension was a PQ transport ministry project, probably aimed at winning a few marginal ridings. They lost the 2003 election and the project continued, with Charest taking the credit (sort of like the Bibliothèque Nationale). haha!

  30. “On se doute que le métro est encore moins justifié que ça à Laval… Pour le même prix, on aurait pu avoir une ligne d’un bout à l’autre du Boulevard des Laurentides, une autre sur St-Martin de Pie-IX jusqu’à Chomedey, et une autre sur Labelle qui, en entrant à Montréal, aurait fini à Côte-Vertu.”
    -Comment by Jean Naimard

    I for one wish M. Vaillancourt had been able to convince his higher-ups to make a full circle of the orange line! It would mean my wife could ditch the car and commute from Montreal to her job in Laval very easily, instead of making two metro transfers and hopping on a bus.

    But I agree that for most new developments, dedicated bus lines, especially electric bus lines, make better sense.

    But stay away from light rail aka trams. I have yet to see any streetcar system built since WWII that makes sense.

    As for rubber tires — I lived in NYC for three years. The shriek of steel on steel as the trains pull into each station underground is deafening.

  31. You should be nice to me (newurbanshapes)! I’ve seen all lines, but I always forget the “stub” as someone already said.

    I did put all the numbers for 2007, Anne. That says everything about the Mexico City’s metro.

    As many ppl already said, the solution is not just enlonging and enhancing the metro, but to put in a whole plan with multiple solutions for multiple problems. Like metro buses with lanes just for them, trams buses and also change those AMT trains for a better system, maybe even greener: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/thread.jspa?messageID=14207700&tstart=0 . The funny thing here is that Quebec (Canada) is the homeland for Bombardier and they have so beautiful and green solutions and this could also create jobs and rise the economy… and I wonder why this is overseen.

    But what it’s true is that it was good that Montreal decided to go with a metro system, just take a look at all cities that have a metro and they have busy but also bearable and livible downtowns (except Mexico City). And the thing here is that if they expect (Qc Government) to receive 55,000 immigrants every year, and also for the first time in 50 years, Quebec’s population has grown instead of shrunk and Montreal has a campaign to keep families from leaving the city for the suburbs, they want to go greener every year, close downtown to cars, etc… they need a more aggresive public transportation plan. Maybe in the past they thought that certain areas of the island wouldn’t be populated, and now they are… or if they aren’t, maybe they aren’t because there is not enough transportation (what was first the egg or the chicken?).

    I sometimes think (in general) the decision-makers don’t see far enough in the future (or further than their noses).

    Cheers and out.

  32. The question is not so much whether a metro network at all was necessary. A need for one throughout the downtown core and some of the inner city neighborhoods was clear for a long time. The question is, was the system in place the best solution for our transportation needs. I believe that if we had a system which could go above ground, it would have been much better. People are much more likely to take public transit if they have a direct access from their neighborhood to the central core, without have to transfer onto buses etc…

  33. The main reason rubber tires were chosen instead of wheels is mainly due to the geological nature of Montreal. Because of that, tunnels have dips, hills and pronounced curves. You don’t exactly feel it when riding at full speed but it’s there. In many stations when you look into the tunnels you can catch a glimpse of how it can be.

    Such a “roller-coaster” like network can only be negotiated with rubber tires. Some hills are so pronounced that no steel-wheel vehicule could climb them. Unfortunately. You’ll also notice steel rails right beside the concrete slabs upon which rubber tires ride. On the inside of a metro’s rubber tire is an all-steel wheel. Each tire has one. If a rubber tire would deflate then the steel wheel would come down and rest on the rail. There’s no electricity in those conventional rails as someone wrote. All power to the train comes from those side railings carrying the necessary 750 volts.

    As it is, trolleybuses or streetcars would have to be specifically designed to withstand the harsh winters we have over here. The old streetcars did have quite a difficult time riding hills in winter especially when ice formed on it transforming the streetcar into a snowsled (accidents did happen, like on Bleury street and elsewhere too). Trolleys need some kind of external power source, usually from wires overhead. Funny enough, people found those wires ugly and not very esthetic.

    Someone also said that metros on the green line date back 1967. The MR-63 units were built starting 63~64 because all the units had to be ready for the september 1966 inauguration.

    On a final note, the STM had, in the 70’s, an elaborate plan to expand the existing network but scrapped all the plans. The underground network should have followed the expansion of the city, allowing for expansion not only in the city but in the suburbs as well. Another plan that was scrapped was the use of the Expo-Express (at Expo 67) as a Suburban line linking to Montreal. It never happened and last I heard the remaining Expo-Express was scrapped in 1995 (it was in 67 the first completely automated train in the world).

    Oh well…

  34. The Metro was no mistake… but the development was halted for too long.
    The choice of stations has lead to speculations within the STCUM (yeah it’s old news) that they were going to close some because of low traffic. Some had no buses passing after rush hour and were in effect dead quiet until closing. Look at De La Savanne station and how it’s odly placed (neighborhood), only one bus passing during daytime (doing basically the same route as the Metro does). The way I see it, it’s there because the stations thend to be even-spaced…

    Over the years, I’ve seen many maps about Metro extensions: Late 80’s the maps in cars had extended lines shown, new lines & station names included too. They were replaced with newer ones before 1990 with mentions of projected lines & extensions names removed and finally the ones we have now.

    A couple of years ago, I worked at Concordia and in the shop at Loyola there was one of the original (as far as I can tell) map of the subway with lines very different from what they are now: the blue line headed west and east from its terminals, the green one never made it to Angrignon or Honoré-Beaugrand… I wish I had taken a picture of it back then.

    If anyone knows of a site dedicated to the Metro (in terms of maps, old pics, etc) please pass it on. TY

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *